Saturday, May 21, 2016

Renewing Our True Identity

Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
May 21, 2016

Renewal of Ministry
Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25a
Psalm 146
Romans 12:1-8
John 15:9-16

Renewing Our True Identity
            Well, this is a great day!
            Today is a milestone for Church of the Incarnation and for your new Priest-in-Charge.
            Today is also a milestone for your sister and brother Episcopalians in Jersey City and it’s also a milestone for our diocese, symbolized by the presence of our bishop and canon this afternoon.
            Now, Gary has been very clear that this isn’t an installation or an institution or even a Celebration of New Ministry.
            No, instead today we are celebrating the renewal of ministry – the renewal of ministry for the Church of the Incarnation, as you formally welcome your new spiritual leader.
            You know, whenever we reach a milestone – whenever we prepare for renewal – it’s a good idea to glance backwards – to look back at the journey we have made – to take stock of the road – in this case, the often stony road – that we have trod.
            Whenever I walk over from St. Paul’s to Incarnation – all of about four blocks – and when I see the top of the former St. John’s just about two blocks away from here – I’m reminded of why there is a Church of the Incarnation – and I’m more than a little ashamed.
            As most, if not all, of you know, this church was founded because a hundred years ago Episcopalians of color were not welcomed in the other Episcopal churches.
            I suspect this unwelcome was made subtly – since Episcopalians are nothing if not polite – but, nevertheless, the message was given - and received.
            This shame has lingered and has coursed through our history, maybe sometimes nearly imperceptibly, like an underground stream, and other times as obvious as roaring waves.
            At long last, we need to finally grapple with this history – face this shame – repent of these sins - and our hope is that in the months ahead we will be able to do just that, together.
            But…against all the odds, while facing racism and decaying neighborhoods and a dramatically changing culture, this church has held firm, continuing to praise God, to proclaim the Good News, to give away its abundance to those in need, to share giants like Eugenia Suthern with the wider church, to partner with others to build much-needed affordable housing, and, yes, to make sweet, sweet music.
            And, we’d be remiss not to acknowledge and thank and celebrate the leaders of Incarnation who, with God’s help, have kept this place going, especially in these challenging recent years without a priest.
            There are people in this room who know just how hard it is to run a church, particularly these days, but it’s so much harder when you’re holding down your own full-time job and have a different priest coming through here every week.
            Yet, here you are.
            Here we are.
            So, we need to thank the lay leaders of Incarnation – we really need to thank them - and most especially your wardens, Sidney King and Carol Harrison-Arnold, and give them heartfelt thanks for a job very well done.
            As we reach this milestone together, we can also look back to the last three years when we have gone a long way to leave behind the resentments and suspicion and competition of the past and truly become sisters and brothers – the last three years when we have begun to truly be the Episcopal Church in Jersey City.
            All three of our churches have been enriched – renewed – by worshiping together, playing together, and, most especially, by going into the community and bringing signs of God’s love and grace to places of sin and despair.
            It’s been great, but, you know, our three-legged stool has always felt a little wobbly without a priest at Incarnation.
            But, here we are.
            God’s grace - with an assist from the bishop and the planners of General Convention – has brought Gary Commins all the way from California to Jersey City.
            Now, I’ll admit, I was a little skeptical at first.
            I mean, in more ways than one, California is a long way from here.
            But, over these past few months, Laurie and I have realized that we’ve hit the jackpot! We’ve won a great colleague – the new guy – the third Musketeer – our new friend - who brings so many gifts: rich experience, spiritual depth, humility and a dry sense of humor.
            From day one, he has plunged into our work together, praying with us at places of murder, getting into our community organizing work, becoming friends with other clergy in the city, participating in the Liturgical Churches Union Lenten series – even preaching at its Easter sunrise service, planning with us to build an even stronger Episcopal witness in this place.
            Thanks to the new guy, our three-legged stool is now balanced and sturdy.
            So, here we are.
            Today, we’ve reached this milestone together, this renewal of ministry, this embarking on an exciting future for the Episcopal Church in Jersey City.
            As we move forward together, my hope and prayer is that we will keep the words of St. Paul that we heard in today’s lesson from Romans close to our hearts and, with God’s help, renew not just our ministry but renew our true identity.
            Paul writes:
            “For as in one body we have many members, and not all members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ.”           
            Though we’ve often fallen short and will, no doubt, fall short again, that’s who we’ve always been meant to be – this is our true identity.
            We, the people of Incarnation - we, the Episcopalians of Jersey City - we are one body in Christ.